Raavan Aaya by Junoon ~ Sakhi

The months of October, November and December brought along a slew of newfound engagements for the Raavan Aaya team— a string of shows in multiple cities in association with Junoon Theatre for their Arts’ Encounter programme. What did this mean for us? Not only do we get to revisit a play which never fails to challenge us as performers, but also we get to share our boggling inquiries with a group of schoolchildren. 300 students in each show to be more precise!

Each show was preceded by a brief introduction to the play where we discussed the possibility of multiple versions of the Ramayana, and the possibility of the canonical characters living different lives in each version. Food for thought— “If Harry Potter’s story was written from the perspective of Voldemort, would it be the same story?”. Probably and possibly not. After four shows in Ludhiana, two shows in Agra, and two more in Rajnagar, we were met with an enthralling post-show discussion which challenged the characters as well as the audience. “Why did the King kill one of his own soldiers?”, “Why were the vanars not being given water?”, “The play is titled ‘Raavan Aaya’, but where was Raavan?” and finally, “Why did Raavan never come? Who is ‘Raavan’, then?”. The journey with this play continues as we continue to reimagine and refashion it, hoping to take it to more schools across the country to be me with a fresh package of curious musings.

Towards a Theatre of Possibility~ Sakhi Upadhyaya

When Sanyukta and I walked into a “capacity-building” workshop organised by Junoon Theatre in Mumbai, I did not know what to expect. It was my first “professional engagement” as a member of Aagaaz. I was jittery, nervous even. What capacities were we attempting to build? What actually awaited us was two days of deliberation, not so much as building but breaking apart what we understood ‘theatre’ to be. “Theatre for children” to be more specific: What did the assembling of these words in this specific order entail?

Theatre, drawing from my interpretation of the haphazard combination of flowcharts and notes from those two days, could be anything one wanted it to be. Especially so with children, toddlers and young adults. A language, a space, an exploration, an activity. Theatre was social, it was political. It was relational, contextual. It was imagination and assertion. However, for me, theatre was always ‘in the making’. It was powerful, but a power that was malleable and subject to destruction or creation as one saw fit. What I mean is that in my limited experience of being a theatre practitioner in Delhi, the edifice of what we called ‘theatre’ was always being broken down and built back up; not by self-professed practitioners like me, but by its encounters with the public at large. Who best to tear something apart and build it back up, refashion it and give it new life, than children?

Theatre was, and in my experience with Aagaaz, has never been a “struggle” to perfect that performance, or to become an expert in this form. The Junoon workshop was an appropriate beginning, of thinking about the possibilities enclosed within what parades as ‘theatre’ and myself. “So let us proceed.” I thought to myself, “Let me allow things in my narrow worldview to fall apart and fall back together.” And that is exactly what I know August will bring, as my journey with Aagaaz “formally” begins. The possibility of many stories, many failures and many creations. Before we left for Mumbai, Sanyukta and I were talking over the phone. “You know, I’m not jittery in the ‘scared’ way, just jittery in the excited, there-are-so-many-things-to-do-and-discover kind of way. Get what I mean?” I told her. And I could hear her subtle acknowledgement in the giddy laughter she replied with.

Aagaaz, No longer a Toddler!- Devika

Children in their years of early development, slowly start to understand concepts. They develop a sense of self and discover time which eventually leads to the acknowledgement of something as simple as age. Aagaaz has had a very similar journey. Dates and starting points were very irrelevant to us when we were smaller and younger. Now, our work and our community has grown and we are beginning to grapple with our identity in the larger ecosystem and ways to stay connected – to our growing world and also our roots. We decided to create a birthday ritual for ourselves – drama games and a show and all our friends.

June was an amazing month for many reasons. One of them was lack of time, which made the process of planning and preparation rigorous and exciting. A special version of Duniya Sabki was the most important element of the day. The core group put their hearts into it and they did everything required to ensure that the play was made, that too beautifully. They practiced at night, negotiated with their families and pushed their bodies without complaining about fatigue. The grown up Aagaaz, was reflected in their actions and decisions.

Muzammil, the director of the play shared that this became a process of mapping Aagaaz’s journey. On an occasion like this, he wanted to present something meaningful and relevant to the group.Despite all the challenges they encountered, he received a lot of support from the rest of the actors. He was impressed by their commitment, especially since they all agreed to practice during late hours. There was a lot of hard work involved and inputs from Sanyukta and others only came in one night prior to the performance.

Saddam, from the core group found the preparation rather challenging at first. He expressed that a lot of the actors didn’t show up initially and punctuality was an issue. He was also constantly concerned about Muzammil, Ismail and Nagina’s energy, which varied depending on the intensity of their work at KHOJ Studios. He was glad to see a gradual shift in the attitudes. Saddam pegs the success of the performance, on the seriousness that emerged during the last few days of rehearsal.

The day itself was like an exercise in ensemble work. We co-created the space for our guests. Cleaning up the space, bringing food, cleaning, labelling and greeting people- all of it happened without much effort. The larger community also blended in with ease. Something about the whole experience was magical. ‘Bhelpuri Khalo’ and ‘Roohafsa lelo’ became the code words for ice-breaking and conversations happened with old friends and new.

We were lucky that some of out near and dear ones, took out time on a busy weekday. The added their own zeal to the space. Like every other birthday, we couldn’t have survived without a small dose of rituals. Mridula from Theatre Professionals and Dhruv, who mentors Aslam – one of our core group members, fulfilled this need by bringing two wonderful cakes. This helped us embrace the cliches we love, and allowed us to consume them in grand proportions.

The performance spoke for itself as the refrains of Safdar’s lines cushioned Aagaaz’s journey and Ankit from Play for Peace helped us set the tone with energisers that had all of us radiating with joy and sweat on the muggy day. Awkwardness permeated the air when everyone was asked to share their favourite ‘Aagaaz Memory’. The initial discomfort gave way to some thoughtful sharings, funny anecdotes and significant stories. There was laughter, running, dancing, selfies, unexpected conversations, and ideas that emerged out of nowhere. Our initial nervousness around not being able to host people, slowly disappeared. Eventually, an invisible thread connected us all and now we are further tangled up in each others’ stories.

ACTing on and off stage

The core group of actors from Aagaaz, have been engaging with regular conversations about gender and sexuality. The adolescent girls meet me on a weekly basis to co-create a safe space.

I have always been fascinated by the prospect of exploring gender as a theme with adolescents. However, this group at Nizamuddin is responsible for opening my eyes to the struggles and significance of such crucial and controversial work. I feel that I have come a long way as a learner, if not a facilitator. My initial conversations with the girls were primarily scientific and factual. We discussed the details of menstruation and spent a whole lot of time naming body parts and critically examining myths and taboos around menstrual health. Gradually, we moved towards understanding personal space, ideas around consent and objectification and slowly transitioned into exploring the notion of pleasure.

Aagaaz’s vision statement says “we relentlessly question ‘what is’ to probe ‘what could and should be’ to learn ways to act and perform beyond just the stage”. We constantly strive to understand the world through theatre, and sometimes we dramatic work based on our lived experience. Being selected for Gender Bender in 2016 ( a festival co-curated and supported by Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut, Bangalore) with Urban Turban, was more of the latter.

As I watched the three actors perform the work-in-progress piece in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti on the 23rd of April, I saw how beautifully they are negotiating their understandings and confusions around their bodies, identities, and their worlds through the thin overlapping space between performing on and off the stage. Urban Turban explores how gender plays out in the everyday lives of three girls living in Nizamuddin Basti. The play explores their struggles, their confusions and their attempts to make their space in the world. It explores their stories, yet manages to encapsulate bits of their next-door neighbour’s story, bits of their school friend’s story, bits of my story and maybe bits of the story being lived by a woman you saw walking on the street.

Our director, Dhwani Vij uses aspects of physical theatre, object theatre and immersive theatre to create an experience that makes the intricacies of these everyday episodes come alive.

In the play, we see the girls in their familiar environments doing the things they do. There is a morning routine, going to school, interacting with the neighbourhood and being at home. The theatrical technique is highlighted when the girls start singing about all the things they don’t understand about the world. The lyrics of the song are comical yet powerful. There is a point where the girls say that ‘sadkon par masti nahi karna samaj nahi aata’ and the simple statement blatantly outlines the patriarchal power structures and the restrictions they create.

Coming back to the show I watched in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, we performed for the community workers of Aga Khan Foundation. This show will remain in our memories for posterity. It was extremely special. This is the school the girls went to as children, this is the neighbourhood where they live and the audience comprises of the people who co-exist in this environment and share this ‘lived experience’. Performing in these circumstances takes a lot more strength, especially when it has potential to confront reality. There is no possibility for the actors to remove themselves from the context after the curtain call.

 

Process oriented theatre is slow work. Sometimes, it takes a while to notice small yet significant insights that emerge over a period of time. This performance for the community, and a few other instances have marked a major shift in how the girls interact with world. 17 year old Jasmine feels that change doesn’t happen overnight and little interventions can make a difference in the way people perceive gender. She feels optimistic about using performance to challenge mindsets and hopes that these messages would influence her environment at home. 18 year old Nagina was glad to see that the questions thrown at the actors, were answered by the women in the audience themselves. She felt that it signified common experience and a relatable understanding of the context. The play triggered moments of self- evaluation for some of the women in the audience and that was also a crucial response, according to her. A moment from the audience interaction that stands out for me was an older woman in the audience saying,” I am going to stop gossiping about young girls from now onwards.”

16 year old Nagma, has other perspectives to offer. She talks about the fear of performing in front of people who might tell her parents what her ‘theatre’ is all about. At the same time, there is acknowledgement of the fact that performances such as these, have potential to show a mirror to society. She strongly believes that change starts from the self, and Urban Turban is a trigger in that direction.

Suddenly, I am able to see how the girls are understanding th larger purpose and long term impact of their work. They feel the need to create more sustainable and frequent exposures in their community. In addition to the performative element, our Darpan sessions have also seen some beautiful turning points. One such moment happened during a recent workshop exploring personal perspectives on gender. We used improvisation games, embodiments, visual arts and scene work to talk about society and the moral standards it imposes on girls. We also managed to do deeper into it, by looking at our narratives of ‘Ideal Women’ and detecting the loopholes there as well. This snippet from a short piece they improvised during this session, highlights their ability to understand the topic with respect to both context and privilege.

(An interaction between a low caste scholar, a middle class housewife, a wealthy socialite and feminist activist)

Scholar: मेरी बेटी को तो देखो कैसे कपड़े पहन के बाहर घूमती रहती है| समाज क्या सोचेगा?

Activist: उसे जो करना है करने दो| समाज समाज समाज!! क्या समाज तुम्हारी थाली पर खाना रखता है या तुम खुद?

Housewife: हम इस समाज का हिस्सा हैं और अभी हम यहाँ से बाहर नही निकल सकते| ह्मे खुद को लोगों की बातों से बचाना है, क्योंकि ह्में ही सुनना पड़ता है|

While dialogues in Nizamuddin are becoming more nuanced by the day, we are still quite new to creating similar spaces with unfamiliar adolescents. Our work at Pehchan Centre in Jaitpur, is taking a different trajectory. Recently, we realised how engaging with the arts consistently can transform an exercise from an intimidating instruction to an opportunity for personal expression. And this hardly took us a few weeks. However, the challenge now lies in pushing ourselves to go deeper into the ideas and the processes.

In which Ajab Gajab bachchas take to the stage ~ Priiya Prethora

It’s difficult to feel the impact of performance till we perform, till we feel the stage is a space we step on to, claim as ours and be watched while we express what it is that we feel. This feeling is an amalgamation of what we have learned before, what being on stage at that particular time does to us and what it’s going to feel like once the performance is over.

Early on in January we decided to put together a short performance with the Ajab gajab gang  of Jamun Wala Park. We chose to work with the opening song of our play Duniya Sabki – Kahab Toh Lag Jaaye Dhak Se, because of the group’s enthusiasm about it following the shows during the Khirki Festival. They already knew the lyrics to the song, although in a sequence that their own imagination created, often strung together on the basis of the closest rhyming word in the previous line. There we were, humming and buzzing our way to the sopranos and falsettos, dance movements of our own making. Much like their cartwheels, they would suddenly flip the flow of the workshops with wide eyed, disbelieving questions – “are we actually going to be on a stage?”, “Will there be a real audience?”,  “Will we dance?”

Sweccha bestowed upon us a colourful room with a giant mirror that is the fourth wall, which became our rehearsing space for this performance. The mirror in the room was our constant audience and we were inseparable, like spirits who have found the long lost bodies which they once inhabited in the living world. We watched ourselves watching ourselves, keeping a check on how we looked while we sang, danced or did nothing but just kissed our reflections, sometimes for more than three minutes. The things did turn around when we designated the space where the audience will be, which was on the opposite side of the mirror. The song has a casual rhythm like that of bullock cart riding on a mud road with drop and lifts caused by puddles so we started manoeuvring our bodies for the lyrics to become thoughts in actions.

The number of children kept varying, especially when we would rehearse in the park, some of them were shy of being watched while rehearsing. The dance choreography consisted of stunts and flips by some of the children and the usual spur of the moment additions by almost everybody. The entire piece took about eight/nine sessions to be completely choreographed.

This particular group of children, with their exuberant energies, often struggled to engage with each other without violence. They also embraced the single narrative that the world around ascribed onto them – they steal, nothing will come off working with them, they are abusive and violent, wild, dirty. This workshop created a tiny crack in the ways in which they see themselves – of the other stories that they can possible be. For children who were written of as uncaring and what not, each one of them had scrubbed themselves clean and worn their best clothes for the show without any instructions from us – they had dressed for a special day. With the workshop’s focus on silence and stillness and the first show that had an audience of 30 strangers – the children discovered the thrill of working together to create an experience. Their post show joy was very tangible palpable in the room after the show.

The theatre bug administered – they are creating their first devised performance for the end of June led by Jasmine Sachdev and Devika Bedi along with our core group members. I cannot wait to see what emerges.

Neuro- Dramatic Play Workshop with Sue Jennings ~Devika

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Aagaaz has embarked on a journey towards nurturing and enhancing the development of its team members. In November, Devika attended a 3 day workshop on Neuro-Dramatic Play and brought back new ideas and plenty of insights. Here is a small reflection, that highlights her detailed observations while interacting with children during this process:

The first of our workshop was a beautiful journey of self-exploration, sensory play, and rhythmic movement. We experimented with themes and ideas and put ourselves in the shoes of the children. It was an experiential session, and it would never have been authentic enough without that element. The real learning, however, started on the second day. Discussing theoretical frameworks about pedagogy or pretend play with adults could never compensate for first-hand experiences with children.

Luckily! This training involved children. I found myself in a group of 4 adults who facilitated for 3 children. Their distinct personalities made the whole process more dynamic. Vaishnavi (6-girl), Shweta (6-girl) and Shalu(8-boy) responded to the same stimulus in very different ways. I spent about 4 hours with these children in the span of two days and managed to observe various skills and patterns in the limited time period.

My first lens for exploration was- ‘Connection with metaphors’. Sue had introduced us to a rain metaphor that was used as a narrative for all our activities. Vaishnavi and Shalu didn’t show much resistance to this idea. Vaishnavi, whose play resembled that of a younger child was more fascinated with sounds, repetition and displaying her capabilities. Shalu, with his hearing and depth perception difficulties, was quite active and enthusiastic about what we brought to the table. Shweta didn’t connect to the metaphor at all and got distracted every few minutes.

Messy Play was another revealing exercise for all of us. It led to joy, energy, imagination and social play for the children and the adults. Vaishnavi was initially quite enthusiastic about the activity. She spent a long time playing with the shaving foam and liked the possibility of connecting with others through the medium. After a while, she got quite flustered and annoyed with the substance on herself, and wanted to clean it off as soon as possible. Shweta also explored the texture of the medium, tried to extend her imagination and wanted more and more for herself. Shalu on the other hand, engaged in individual sensory play, without paying much regard to what others were doing.

I was quite fascinated by the children’s tendency to adapt to the new flock of adults around them. Initially, they all operated with apprehension and curiosity which soon transformed into openness. The first indicator was visible when the children decided to include us in the drawings they were making. All three of them were particularly friendly, yet they showed different characteristics. Shalu was accepting of the facilitators, yet he didn’t seek much attention. On the second day, however, he chose to go and hug one specific older person he felt comfortable with. Shweta liked the attention and holding our hands, yet she managed to separate herself from us when she felt like it. Vaishnavi sought a lot of physical touch and affection, and constantly indulged in hugging and kissing. This led to a lot of questions in my mind about the care at their centre. However, I was aware that I couldn’t jump to any premature conclusions about attachment behavior.

Stories became a good tool to gauge listening skills and memories. Sue had narrated a story on the first day the children arrived, and we asked them to recall details on the second day. My co-facilitators and I had noticed that Shweta was particularly restless and distracted during the storytelling. My assumptions around her lack of attention were challenged, when she managed to recall important details from the story. Shalu was also quite attentive and his body language coincided with that. Vaishnavi, didn’t show signs of having remembered much from the story. She seemed to be struggling with sitting still and paying attention. What I love the most about working with children is that they are unpredictable and more than capable of shattering perceptions.

I was curious about the extent to which children exhibit initiative taking and leadership in group activities. On the first day, I noticed that both Vaishnavi and Shalu enjoyed leading the singing and dancing exercises, while Shweta found the theme difficult to connect to. On the second day her attitude was very different and robust. She seemed way more confident and enjoyed the process of initiating aspects of the work, especially while narrating the story.

Lastly, there were a lot of unique patterns that I tried to pay attention to. Vaishnavi, was particularly restless, resisted following instructions after a certain point and went into sudden outbursts of expression- especially anger. Her patience levels were very low and told more than one facilitator that they were making her dirty during messy play. She also wanted a lot of things while doing a craft activity and showed very little inclination to share. Sue had made some very acute observation about how she was involved in games such as ‘peek-a-boo’ which were developmentally inappropriate for her age.

Shweta had a fantastic memory that remained throughout the 4 hours. Her understanding of subtlety was quite impressive. I noticed this in two instances. One of them was the story recall, where she was clearly more confident than the other two. I made simple eye-contact with her when she spoke out of turn, and she always caught it as an indicator to slow down. Her drawing also showed some very interesting details and nuances. She coloured the bird in her drawing, in two different colours to signify that some movement had taken place. She also seemed to enjoy the process of mocking others, especially adults.

Shalu was expressive in his drawings and very calm at the same time. He showed very little resistance to any activities. He wanted to do the work given to him and also liked the process of displaying and showing it off. She showed curiousity and interest in other people’s drawings, and seemed to have very little competitive tendencies.
My favourite moment in the whole workshop was when the children were asked to pull apart their craft work. I could hear my heart breaking, because they had put a lot of effort in creation and ideation. The children, being their wonderful selves were actually quite open to that process. I was awestruck by their responses and felt almost sad they would have to grow up to be adults someday.

Theatre with ‘The Community Library Project’, Panchsheel Vihar By Priiya

 

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There is a deep sense of kinship to be working again with a group of participants who have already been led into a theatrical journey of sharing ideas and experiences, and it provides for a pleasant challenge. These workshops become a continuation of an educational exercise through theatre and play an important part in the evolution of thought itself.  The group of kids from The Community Library Project at Deepalaya at Panchsheel Vihar are in gears for the second series of workshops with us and that has us moving.

Following the first performances that culled out of Duniya Sabki in a workshop format, the second series revolves around stories, storytelling and the storytellers. The stories that we are working on are the ones that have been read by this group of 12 avid readers over the last few months, stories that they carried beyond the books . Through a range of narrative and improv exercises, we are experimenting with the numerous ways in which these stories could possibly be told. Their choice of stories they want to tell is in itself a fascinating reflection of what appeals to these children as unique individuals.

As with most workshops, as much as planning ahead of time is essential, many thoughtful developments happen during or after the planned activities, and the dynamics of set exercises are prone to modification on a daily basis. After the initial step of sharing stories in our workshops, we are now gradually shifting our focus towards the act of narration of the stories, using various techniques involving images, machines, non-linear narratives and humanization of objects around us. In the recent workshops, most of the brainstorming sessions have been whirling towards an attempt of bringing to surface the impact of invisible characters in each child’s story. This exercise is an effective way of understanding the varied perspectives that can alter the narrative direction of the story being told. This has set in motion the process of not only thinking but also acting from various point of view. Interestingly, one of the children has chosen the guitar in her story to be the storyteller and another one is trying to make a box of paint talk, oh! it’s going to be fun.

My first encounter with the Drama in Education Jams- Dikshant Sharma

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I came to know about DiE jams through a post published on Facebook.
It sounded quite interesting for it came across as a free, open space to brainstorm and explore endless possibilities.
A space to use and explore drama as an educational tool through various methods and activities, was naturally inviting.
The session turned out to be no less than expected. It was a fusion of several energisers, creative drama exercises and reflections; carried out by every individual present.
Since everyone had acquired and adopted the art in their own unique way, the possibilities to explore, and ideas generated in a single session were remarkably impressive.
To sum it up, it was an open, liberal space where one could engage with smart and like-minded individuals in order to create a methodology, thereby, applying theatre to education.
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